Sunday, February 25, 2007

“We’re all so much in limbo, none of us knows where to turn.”

Landowners frustrated as specter of toll road spooks would-be buyers

February 25, 2007

The Gazette (Colorado Springs)
Copyright 2007

CALHAN - Wanda Pridgen might have an easier time selling her house if it were haunted by actual ghosts.

But it’s got something else to make buyers squirm — the specter of a highway going straight through her living room.

“Now I can’t put it on the market,” said Pridgen, who figures her ranch — with its 40 acres, a row of stately pines and a house she’s put a lot of work into — might otherwise entice someone looking for a little space and quiet.

Pridgen is one of thousands of landowners in eastern Colorado whose land titles are clouded by notices of a toll road company’s intent to build a road.

The cloud that descended earlier this year, residents say, has paralyzed the market, making all but the most daring of buyers afraid to buy, while lenders are reluctant to lend and sellers are in limbo.

“The impact on citizens is just unbelievable,” said Lin Watkins, a real estate agent.

Never mind it’s unknown whether the toll road will materialize.

In the mid-1980s, Ray Wells, president of the Prairie Falcon Parkway Express Co., began planning a 210-mile highway that would run almost the length of the state, but the project stalled until 2004, when Wells said some investors expressed interest in financing it.

Many eastern plains residents reacted with fury, saying the road, dubbed Super Slab, would rob them of land they’d worked their lives to buy.

At the time, private toll roads had the power of eminent domain. Lawmakers since have banned the practice, while allowing the Colorado Department of Transportation to condemn property for private toll roads if there is an overriding public need.

With some residents saying they bought property in the corridor without knowing about the proposed road, lawmakers also passed a bill requiring toll roads to file a notification with county clerks.

In January, Wells did that, filing a blanket notice against all of the properties in the three-mile-wide corridor where he hopes to build the road.

What that means for the landowners — about 1,000 in El Paso County — is that a title search will reveal a notice that residents say dooms a sale.

“There is a cloud over the property,” said Bob Hoban, attorney for Save Our Homes Coalition, a group fighting the toll road.

He said the notices have caused at least 100 instances in which owners encountered problems refinancing or selling their land “because title companies are refusing to insure against it. That scares buyers away.”

The telephone lines across the Plains are alive with tales of such incidents:

Watkins tells of a contract that collapsed because the lender — unwilling to accept the property as collateral — shied away from the loan.

In Calhan, Millie Manyik describes how some buyers fell in love with a 35-acre piece of the family farm she and her husband, Delmer, are trying to sell. When they learned of Super Slab, the buyers changed their minds.

Manyik said they’ve scarcely had a showing since; these days, she calculates their chances of selling at “nil — absolutely nothing unless you go to such a low price, it would be ridiculous.”

Near Kiowa, horse trainer Mindy Bower and her husband have a 127-acre ranch they can’t seem to sell.

They’ve heard horror stories of other Elbert County residents whose sales fell through when the buyers read the notices. “It makes me sick to my stomach,” Bower said.

Residents agree buyers have the right to know what’s going on. But why, they ask, place a shadow on a title over something that may never happen?

“This is really choking the life out of people,” Pridgen said.

Those who don’t absolutely have to sell are lucky, observed Beverly Crockett, who lives in Colorado Springs but owns land in Calhan.

She counts herself among that group but knows that could change someday.

A bill introduced by state Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, would remove the requirement that county clerk and recorders send the notices, which are then attached to the titles. The bill remains in limbo before the House Transportation and Energy Committee.

Jason Hopfer, spokesman for the toll road company, said the filing “doesn’t confer any legal interest in the property.”

Residents should take up their concerns with the title companies, he said.

Not having the notices would be a disservice to buyers, said Eric Morgan, executive director of the Land Title Association of Colorado. “We’re trying to protect consumers,” he said.

Hoban said he’s working with legislators to determine how to deal with the notices.

A lawsuit by landowners whose property values have diminished because of the claim might also be possible, he said.

“It’s a terrible situation. We’re going to see what we can do to relieve the pressure,” Hoban said.

Lawsuits and new laws take time, however. Residents say they want help now.

“We’re all so much in limbo, none of us knows where to turn,” Manyik said.

© 2007 The Gazette, a division of Freedom Colorado Information:

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